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A real-world Stargate

This gateway between India and Bhutan is a magical portal that can take a traveller between two disparate worlds in a matter of minutes

Published: 23rd April 2015 05:59 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd April 2015 05:59 AM   |  A+A-

By Shome

BENGALURU: The premise of the Stargate universe revolves around an ancient device found amongst the ruins in the sands of Egypt. It looks like an arch made of stones engraved with hieroglyphics. The arch, it is discovered, is part of a network of other similar arches that activate wormhole-like portals between themselves and other parts of the universe that are millions of light years apart.

A traveller with an Indian passport can often find her options to roam abroad a bit limited unless they have undertaken a fair bit of planning and applied for visas months in advance. Unlike their Japanese or Swedish counterparts, Indians are not exactly favoured with visas on arrival in many countries. Yet, the one thing that our humble blue document does is give its holder a privilege that no other can match: it allows its holder the experience of actually walking through a stargate.

This gate is in a place traditionally known as the Dooars, a popular spot for tea plantations. It is here that the otherwise vast and forbidding Himalayas allow a momentary access to another land and reveal the vast hinterlands of Central Asia via the passes. Monks and merchants have traversed these paths for hundreds of years carrying musk, spices, gold dust and more valuably, knowledge and information. It is from this region that Buddhism travelled to China and beyond, to Korea and Japan. And this  mystical-magical place is also home to a small bustling township called Jaigaon.

To reach Jaigaon, you'll have to either fly to the Bagdogra airport where Airbuses and Boeings jostle with MIGs for landings and take-offs and the fact that this is an airport shared by the civilians and the military is evinced by the fact that there are anti-aircraft guns under camouflage nets and stringent security checks. One can also take a train to Jalpaiguri and then travel to Jaigaon by road. The road to Jaigaon, an essential supply route to the Northeast in north Bengal, runs through Siliguri and branches off to Darjeeling. Ironically, this arterial road is a thin sliver. Its potholes are so deep that the Maruti Vans and Tempo Trax cars that traverse it are heavily modified with monster-truck suspensions.

Jaigaon, as can be expected of any Indian town is typically chaotic. The buildings are square and grey; no architectural planning or zoning is intelligible. Dust swirls around mouth-freshener sachets. Trucks and buses honk and rage. In the far corner of this town, as the gradient slowly begins to sweep upwards (the rumour is that the border was decided by the point where a pebble stopped rolling from the mountains to the plains), stands an arch with pagoda-like inversions. Under it, stand two stocky soldiers in blue uniforms that keep a weary eye on the traffic that streams under the structure. They'll check your ID that proves Indian citizenship and let you through the arch, directing you to the local office where under ten minutes you will be processed, photographed, and issued a travel permit. Anyone else, who is not Indian, has to apply before-hand and pay a minimum of $200 a day to visit Bhutan.  The non-Indian tourist is strictly chaperoned and detailed by state-appointed travel advisors. Indians, on the other hand, are allowed to roam unsupervised.

As you walk through the gate a vague sense of unease takes hold. Wait. What just happened? Where...am I?

You struggle for the longest time to figure out exactly what you're experiencing. This is supposed to be Phuntsholing, Jaigaon’s Bhutanese sister, so why then, are there manicured potted plants that serve as road dividers? Why is no one honking? Where is the litter and garbage? What is going on?

Then, it hits you. It's not what you're seeing and hearing: it's what you are not seeing and hearing.

Bhutan, the country that you have been transported to by the pagoda-gate, is so ordered, organised and rule-abiding that even the shop signs follow a prescribed format. They are all the same size, lettered the same way. Buildings are built specifically to an indigenous style. The effect of these perfectly maintained settlements, guarded by ranks of giant mountains, is breathtaking. Then, there are the gravity defying structures that serve both as fortresses and monasteries (known as dzongs) that seemed to float around mountain tops like they have been made from mist.

Best of all, is the common courtesy between the people. The ruddy-cheeked children, that are constantly climbing over and falling over everything, are protected, hugged and cuddled by strangers like they are family. 

All transactions (the purchase of yak cheese momos is particularly recommended) are conducted with both hands. The connect is electric. From here you push on to Paro and beyond. That's where the airport is. Sitting on a hill, you can watch the tiny planes of Druk Airlines hug the snaking valley and make astounding landings on a strip that is separated from the surrounding town by just barbed wire. The tourist who lands at this small and beautiful airport has arrived entirely expecting to be transported to a different place.

But most startling of all is the Stargate experience of instantaneous travel at Jaigaon. However, it is only for Indians.

 

Shome is a writer who blogs at www.zombiesandcomputers.com



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